By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Although the pigs Snowball and Napoleon are far better-known, several other pigs play important roles in Animal Farm, George Orwell’s 1945 fable about Soviet Russia. Orwell’s novel satirises the way the ideals of the Russian Revolution of 1917 were subsequently betrayed, especially under Josef Stalin. And the October Revolution is important context for understanding the character of Old Major, another key figure in Animal Farm.
Who is Old Major?
A ‘prize Middle White boar’, Major is, the narrator tells us, well-regarded by the other animals on the farm. When he has a ‘strange dream’ which inspires him to propose that the animals take control of the farm, all of the animals turn out to hear him speak. He is exhibited under the more flattering name of Willingdon Beauty.
Major has just one scene in the book, but it is a ‘major’ one. One night, once Mr Jones has gone to bed, the animals gather in the barn to hear Major speak. Old Major outlines a dream in which man is overthrown and animals can live free from man’s tyranny over them. He also sings the song ‘Beasts of England’, which describes a utopian world in which animals are free.
Major warns that, if such a dream is realised and the animals can overthrow man, they must not come to resemble men in their behaviour. They mustn’t live in houses, wear clothes, drink or smoke, or engage in trade. They must become the thing they most despise. Of course, this is precisely what happens once Napoleon and the other pigs have taken over the farm.
Major dies three days after he has given his rousing speech to the animals. He dies peacefully in his sleep, presumably of old age. But the narrator tells us that his speech ‘had given to the more intelligent animals on the farm a completely new outlook on life.’
What does Old Major represent?
One of the aspects of Major’s character which critics of Animal Farm have disagreed on is precisely which figure in the October Revolution Major is modelled on. There are two candidates here, and a case can be made for both of them being inspirations for the character.
One theory holds that Old Major is modelled on Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution which overthrew Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov dynasty, making Russia a Communist republic. Lenin died in 1924, several years after the October Revolution (‘the Rebellion’ of Animal Farm).
Some critics of Orwell’s novel object to the idea that Major is supposed to represent Lenin, on the grounds that Major dies before the Rebellion – the name the animals give to their revolution which overthrows their ‘Tsar’, Mr Jones the farmer – rather than after it.
For this reason, the majority of critics tend to view Major as representing Karl Marx (1818-83), the founder of Communism, and thus the political thinker who inspired the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. Marx popularised his ideas in the nineteenth century, but died some time before the Revolution of 1917 which his ideas helped to inspire – much as Major dies before the other animals can put his ideas into practice on the farm.
It is worth remembering that Old Major initially wishes to gather the animals of the farm together and address them because he has had a dream: a vision of how their lives could be. This accords with the idea of Marx envisioning a better society based around common ownership of the means of production (a core Communist idea).
The Communist Manifesto, which Marx co-authored with Friedrich Engels in 1848, ends:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!
Major’s rousing words to the animals in Animal Farm are clearly modelled on these lines from The Communist Manifesto. Major concludes his speech:
What then must we do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race! That is my message to you, comrades: Rebellion! […] And above all, pass on this message of mine to those who come after you, so that future generations shall carry on the struggle until it is victorious.
As well as echoing Marx here, Major also outlines all the ways in which ‘man’, the ruling class as the animals see him, takes from the animals without giving them a share in what the animals work to produce:
Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilises it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin.
With these rousing words, Major helps to inspire the other characters of Animal Farm to revolution, even though he doesn’t live to see that revolution himself.